Annually, the business of human and sex trafficking is making huge profits; billions and billions of dollars. After drugs and arms, it is the third-largest criminal industry in the world. Every fourth victim of forced labour is a child, and so is every fifth person forced into prostitution. Contrary to common belief, human and sex trafficking is not only an issue in underdeveloped countries, half of the profit is raised in industrialized countries: It happens in Europe. It happens in the USA. It could be happening in your town.
Maddie Melton, a graduate from Li Po Chun UWC in Hong Kong only found out about this phenomenon when she came to LPC, but has played an active role in the fight against human trafficking ever since. Here she tells us about the students initiative “Students against Slavery”, her trips to AFESIP camps in Cambodia, where former sex slaves are cared for and guided towards a brighter future, and her hopes and doubts on completely diminishing sex slavery and human trafficking. Read and spread!
I didn’t know anything about human trafficking or modern day slavery until I got to UWC in Hong Kong. Like most people, I equated slavery with the trans-Atlantic slave trade of several centuries ago and had never heard the term slavery used to refer to something happening today. Everyone spends their childhood and youth studying history and all the terrible things that happened in the past, but it’s interesting how we spend more time in school learning about that than what’s really happening in the world today. During my first semester at LPC, I heard a bit about human and sex trafficking from events run by our student initiative “Students against Slavery” (SAS), but I was not in the group and my understanding of the issue was still quite limited. I signed up for the SAS trip during project week that year because I was curious to learn more and because I was eager to join a trip that wasn’t just for “fun and cultural exploration” but that really seemed to be making a difference. Looking back, it was definitely one of my most important decisions at UWC. When I got back from project week, I joined SAS and it has been a continuous learning experience since then.
In SAS we tried to explore and address the issue of human trafficking from as many angles as possible. Firstly, we try to educate ourselves. We watched movies, read and discussed articles, and talked with key figures of the anti-trafficking movement, particularly in Hong Kong. We also tried to spread the information to our peers at LPC and students at other secondary schools in Hong Kong by giving presentations and helping several to start their own anti-trafficking groups. We passed out information at the 24 Hour Race, a big inter-school sports event that tries to raise money for the battle against human trafficking. And we also hosted a day-camp on campus where we tried out a human trafficking simulation activity for the first time – and it worked great! A lot of members of the group also had independent projects going on, such as writing articles for newspapers in their home countries or fundraising for AFESIP, the organisation we visit in Cambodia during the project week trips, after they graduated from LPC.
AFESIP stands for Acting for Women in Distressing Situations and runs three centres that are homes for Cambodian girls who have been rescued from sex slavery or volatile sexual abuse situations. Sex trafficking in Southeast Asia is widespread, and like sex slaves all over the world, the girls are treated brutally; being gang raped, sewn back up and sold over and over again as virgins, forced into drug addition to keep them dependent on their pimps, beaten and tortured, and forced to service twenty to thirty clients a day. Many are sold by their own families! Two of the AFESIP centres care for girls who were rescued when they were older than fifteen. In the centres, they learn skills in sewing, weaving, or hairdressing and get set up with their own business after several years at the centre. This gives them the chance to start a new life and to have a job that will feed them and their family and it also tries to prevent them from falling back into their past situations due to the need for money. The third home is for girls who were rescued when they were younger than fifteen years old, some are as young as four or five! They have the chance to go to school, and some even go on to university.
The organisation does a great job providing a home for the girls. But when we go there, we cannot forget that everyone who was supposed to care for them formerly has mistreated these girls. They want love and support more than anything. Many of them have missed out on their childhood, and the chance to play games and just relax is wonderful. While we’re in the centres, our first goal is to try to show them as much love as possible. We want them to know that we are there for them. The partnership has been going on for a long time and the girls know Stella, a teacher at LPC and Dave, her husband, very well, so even though the group of us students changes a bit from year to year, they trust the consistency of our visits and love hearing from co-years and friends how the people who visited in the past are doing. For our visits, we bring along several games and dances as well as drama and art activities. The centre provides for the girls’ basic needs, but they rarely get to do so many of the activities that I took for granted while growing up, and we basically try to bring a week of fun to the centre. Additionally, we’ve also recently started integrating an English program. They’re eager to learn English and our visits are a great chance for them to practice. Speaking English greatly improves the opportunities available to them when they leave the centres and start looking for jobs, and it’s also critical because some of them are eager to become advocates against trafficking in the future. Speaking English allows them to share their story with the world.
Finally, we try to integrate therapy activities into the trip. The girls don’t get too much therapy at the centre, (although this is changing!), which is unbelievable given what they’ve been through. Of course, we’re not professionals and we don’t want to enter territory that we can’t handle, but we do try some art and drama activities that give them the space to share and reflect. We have faced very positive results so I’m confident that we’re not doing any additional harm but are actually helping the girls. In fact, I cannot express how much our visits mean to the girls. When I was there this summer, they showed me pictures of all the LPC students that had ever visited the centre. They remembered all of their names, and asked how each one was doing. They were so excited to hear about these former visitors and would repeat their names over and over. They sent me away with personalised notes written painstakingly in English, and asked all of us when we would be able to come back again. The girls also had another request, which was very important to them personally: They asked us to tell everyone in our home countries about them and their stories, to make sure that all the men, women, and children suffering from sex slavery and human trafficking don’t remain invisible. This showed me that they know there are many girls like them still suffering in Cambodia, and they want to be heard and know that there are people out there who care about all of them.
I have never doubted for one second that our visits are extremely valuable and important to the girls, and to everyone who undertakes such a trip. One of the moments that showed this to me most clearly happened on the last night of our project week to AFESIP this March. We were having a small party and at the end we handed out presents, letters, and photographs to all of the girls. The girl who received her bag last was very new to the centre; I think she had only been there a few weeks or months. We handed her the bag and her entire face changed, but she didn’t say anything. It literally looked as if no one had ever given her a gift before in her entire life. There’s a good chance that assumption is true. The girls come from places I cannot imagine in my nightmares. Their stories consist of betrayal after betrayal, violation, pain… There are no words to describe what they’ve been through. Their strength is truly a miracle. We cannot, unfortunately, take those memories away, but we can do our best to make their new memories full of love, laughter, and fun. When I think about what I’m saying actually, it makes me angry in a sense to realize that I used so much of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ However that’s not really how it is! These trips are about relationships, about bonding and loving, learning from each other, making friends and recognising that we all come from different places and experiences, some straight out of the depths of hell, but that we have to make the most of what we have now, and never stop fighting.
Now that I’m studying in the Netherlands, I don’t know how possible it will be for me to return to the centres in Cambodia for several years, but I’m definitely committed to staying connected to the issue. Over the summer, I spoke with quite a few people in my hometown in the U.S. and I’ve been fundraising for AFESIP for the past several months. Right now I’m starting to organise an anti-trafficking group at my university that I hope will eventually operate similarly to SAS. And sex trafficking is definitely not an issue that is restricted to Southeast Asia. It has been a particularly huge problem in the Netherlands since prostitution became legal in 1988. In the coming months I’m hoping to get connected with organisations working to fight sex trafficking in this part of the world.
Prostitution is called the oldest profession, and surely forced prostitution (more aptly to be called sex slavery) is only an extension of that. As the world becomes more global, people have access to more wonderful goods, services and platforms for sharing than ever before, but lots of terrible industries like slavery and trafficking businesses also use these products of modernisation to grow. Trafficking is an extremely multi-layered issue, and facing it will take dedicated force on every front: both the supply and demand side of exploitation, political motivation and enforcement of anti-trafficking policies, community outreach and education, rescue and rehabilitation… Honestly, I don’t know how much hope I have that this issue will improve significantly in the next few generations, but that absolutely does not mean I think we should stop trying to fight it. If even just one person is rescued from the clutches of trafficking, the effort has been worth it. I was initially sceptical about this business of “raising awareness” that never seems to do anything concrete, but now I think that’s just my own ego needing validation. If I give a talk for five hundred people, maybe only two will care enough and remember enough to tell others, but maybe that information will eventually make its way to someone with the political influence, money, or skills to really do something. The scope of this problem is too big to imagine, but we must keep talking and making the best use of our own skills to do what we can.
For more information on human and sex trafficking, please also view the following links and resources:
- Anti-trafficking organisations in Cambodia, South East Asia: AFESIP, APLE
- Somaly Mam: The Road of Lost Innocence (book)
- “Not My Life”, “Cambodia: The Virginity Trade”, “Nefarious: Merchant of Souls” (movies)
- and these regional organisations that are doing all they can to prevent trafficking from a variety of angles: Polaris Project (USA), Liberty Asia (Asia), La Strada (Europe)
Photo: Maddie (girl on the very right) with a group of other students who went on an anti-trafficking trip to Kampong Cham, Cambodia, in March.